Monday, January 20, 2014

The Sound of Wood... and Metal, and Plastic, and Fiberglass.

Every year at this time, it gets a little quieter in 99% of America. 

There's a bit less noise polluting the atmosphere over the vast majority of the landscape for about four days during the middle of January. No; it's nothing to do with bus drivers going on strike or it being too cold for construction crews to work. It's because this is the time during which an astounding number of musicians with advanced technical facility all descend at once on Anaheim, California for the annual NAMM Convention. The purpose of NAMM is to assemble all the companies who manufacture and sell instruments, amplifiers, accessories, and any other music-related product, so they can unveil their new releases to everyone else in the industry.

NAMM is a good thing, because it stimulates the economy of the music business in one of the only sectors left that still actually MAKES money; the instruments and gear sector. As all the intangible aspects of the field have their value slowly decimated (recorded music, live performance, education, etc), this area has been keeping pace with modern technology and thriving. After all, most of the things sold in this sphere are… THINGS; tangible, physical objects -- and we as a society still perceive those as having value. 

The joke is on us; you can't put a price on real musical knowledge and ability, and we're so ignorant of that, and yet it costs almost nothing to make most of the cheap assembly-line instruments and the metal and plastic boxes with circuit boards we gladly pay hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for.

The musician's "urge to have STUFF" is even more pervasive because of the internet. Now when people buy stuff, they can post pictures of it on forums and brag… about how they now OWN STUFF. This tends to incite envy in others of a similar temperament, who promptly seek out more gear themselves. Bass players in particular seem to love this to the point of neurosis, and it is maddening, because so few people who fit the gear-hoarding personality type can actually PLAY worth a damn. 

(all pics from actual forums - I have no idea if the respective owners are capable players; I only know that this sort of thing encourages others to do the same, which leads to widespread cases of bass owners who can't play)

I am not making this up; I have traveled around the world, speaking and performing at events centered around the selling of music products, and everywhere I have gone, I've met so many people who spend so much money on accumulating basses, amplifiers, processors, pedals, and gear….  and any of them would set themselves on fire before they would ever pay for a single lesson to learn how to actually make any of it *sound good*.

Here's the thing: changing the SOUND you play with does not change your inherent understanding of music. Stepping on an envelope filter pedal may suddenly give you the attack you're looking for to make the syncopated line you're playing really sit where you want it to in a mix…  but buying that pedal will not teach you to syncopate. There are legions of bitter would-be-funkateers who thought that dropping a few hundred bucks on a slew of stomp boxes would turn them into Bootsy Collins… but whose eyes gloss over at the idea of being asked to COUNT in time with a song. 

This is a tough situation for everyone, because most of the people I'm describing are aware of, and on some level are embarrassed about, their disproportionate gear-to-ability ratio. Embarrassing them publicly isn't the answer; it only makes them defensive and more stand-offish about taking steps towards learning.

So think about it, gear-hounds: make 2014 the year you DON'T spend hundreds of dollars on a new instrument for your temperature-and-humidity-controlled collection room. Consider spending that money instead on some personal music instruction. With services like Lessons via Skype (through YOURS TRULY, among others), you never have to leave your house, and nobody needs to know you're taking lessons. Justify owning all that stuff by backing it up with some real ability. You'll feel amazing when you create quality music, and you'll appreciate your gear more when you know you can use it as it was intended.

Food for thought. :]